A National Rifle Association spokesperson says Botham Jean would still be alive if he had a firearm. But when African Americans legally bearing arms are shot by police, the organization’s media outlet doesn’t defend them.
Staff writer at The Atlantic
The city of Dallas, Texas, has been rocked by news of an off-duty police officer shooting a black man in his own apartment. On September 6, off-duty police officer Amber Guyger entered Botham Jean’s apartment and shot him dead. She has since claimed—after a number of shifting accounts—she mistakenly thought she was entering her own apartment and believed it was being burglarized.
Most people reacted to the news of the shooting with outrage—regardless of the circumstances, shooting an innocent man dead in his own home is a horrible tragedy. Conservatives like National Review’s David French have argued that Guyger “committed a crime by forcing open Jean’s door, deliberately took aim, and killed him.” Commentary’s Sohrab Ahmari observed, “Even within the four walls of his castle, his home, Jean was not safe from undue police violence.”
The National Rifle Association’s spokesperson sees the incident a bit differently. Dana Loesch arguedthat Jean would have still been alive had he been armed, and shot Guyger instead. “I don't think there’s any context that the actions would have been justified,” Loesch acknowledged, but asserted that “this could have been very different if Botham Jean had been, say he was a law abiding gun owner and he saw somebody coming into his apartment.” At a time when many conservative writers were expressing empathy for Jean and hoping that justice would be served, Loesch’s disciplined adherence to the NRA’s bottom line stands out.
Loesch’s reaction is an example of what one might call the “Rice Rule,” after Tamir Rice, the 12-year old who was killed by a white police officer while playing in a park with a toy gun: There are no circumstances in which the responsibility for a police shooting of an unarmed black person cannot be placed on the victim.
There’s also a catch-22 here: If Jean had been armed, Guyger would have a much more plausible defense. If innocent unarmed black men like Jean are shot, it’s because they lack firearms; if innocent black men who are armed like Castile or Sterling are shot, it’s because they had a gun. Heads, you’re dead, tails, you’re also dead.
Yet the NRA did release an ad siding with President Trump against the NFL players protesting police violence. One might ask why the NRA waded into the conflict over the NFL protests at all. The group has long urged citizens to arm themselves against the possibility of government tyranny, only to come down on the side of the state when it kills innocent people who are black. An additional irony is that historically, the only American population to be forcibly deprived of their weapons were black Americans at the end of Reconstruction, disarmed by racist paramilitary groups.
The answer may have less to do with the defense of gun rights than the sale of firearms. As Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, told NPR, the NRA is “a de facto trade association masquerading as a shooting sports foundation,” funneling millions of dollars each year to the group and its affiliates. Marketing violent fantasies to its members encourages them to buy firearms. According to Pew, three in 10 Americans own guns, while 29 percent of gun owners own five or more. This is the NRATV’s target demographic; given their demonization of Democrats and liberals, it’s clear the outlet is uninterested in the 20 percent of Democrats who own firearms.
The NRA has long nurtured the fantasy of revolutionary violence against a tyrannical government—in 1995 former President George H.W. Bush resigned from the organization after NRA chief Wayne LaPierre called federal law-enforcement officials jack-booted thugs. During the Obama-era however, this sort of rhetoric went into overdrive, and gun sales skyrocketed as right-wing figures warned of a need for liberty-minded citizens to prepare themselves for armed struggle against the government. It’s no coincidence that this coincided with the election of America’s first black president. During Reconstruction, terrorist groups like the White League promulgated hoaxes about armed blacks seeking kill white men en masse and rape white women, in order to scare up recruitment and preemptively justify violence against their political rivals. The specter of “negro rule” proved a powerful motivator.